By Steve Visser
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The 53 headstones represent most likely only a fraction of the slaves buried on I-75.
The graves are what is known as the Gilbert Cemetery, once an acre of land at the Cleveland Avenue bridge. Thousands of commuters catch a glimpse of the headstones daily on a plot of Department of Transportation land, cut off from any visitors by the ramps of cloverleaf.
More than a few drivers must wonder who they are, but on a day when many people visit the graves of their deceased relatives, it seems timely to reflect on Gilbert Cemetery, where descendants are denied that chance. But the truth is that most of the dead there had been forgotten a long time ago. It took a road project and a controversy over Jesus to revive the memory.
The property once belonged to plantation owner Jeremiah Gilbert, who in 1861 set aside a portion for a cemetery for slaves and their family members, according to a federal court opinion. In the 1950s, the cemetery was destroyed by persons unknown, according to a historic marker, and by the early 198os, it was holding up a major DOT project on I-75 and the Cleveland Avenue ramps.
The DOT takes the position today that the concrete headstones don’t necessarily even represent a burial site. Spokeswoman Jill Goldberg said the department isn’t even sure that there are any dead either under the grass or the pavement.
“It is something of a mystery,” Goldberg said. “They are ceremonial markers.”
Lawyer Jeff Bramlett, who represented the descendants of the dead in the 1980s, said the DOT tried to run roughshod over the cemetery. He noted that road builders circumnavigated a white cemetery near the I-85 and Cleveland Avenue intersection.
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